Halloween Havoc!: ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (Universal-International 1948)

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It’s Halloween, and we’ve finally made it to the Universal Classic Monsters! Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and The Wolf Man had last appeared onscreen in 1945’s HOUSE OF DRACULA. Shortly thereafter, Universal merged with International Pictures and decided to produce only “prestige” pictures from then on, deeming their Gothic creature features no longer relevant in the post-war, post-nuclear world. The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were also in danger of becoming irrelevant, victims of their own success, as audiences were beginning to grow tired of them after twenty movies in a scant eight years.

That “prestige” thing didn’t work out so well, and Universal went back to what they did best…. producing mid-budget movies for the masses. Producer Robert Arthur developed a script called “The Brain of Frankenstein”, giving it over to Frederic Rinaldo and Robert Lees. Lou Costello hated it, and the team’s gag writer John Grant was brought it to punch things up. Horror icons Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, and Glenn Strange were recruited to reprise their most famous roles, and the title was changed to ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, the template for all horror comedies to come.

Lou Costello (Wilbur Grey) and Bud Abbott (Chick Young) deliver two crates to a house of horrors. The crates contain Count Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. The vampire wants to transplant Wilbur's simple brain into the monster so he will be completely under Dracula's control.

For the uninitiated, Bud and Lou play a pair of inept delivery men charged with transporting two very large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors, said to contain the remains of Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. Lou gets creeped out when Dracula’s coffin keeps opening (mainly so they could use the old “moving candle” gag), which of course Bud doesn’t see. The two fiends escape and McDougal has the boys arrested for stealing his property. They’re bailed out by a beautiful woman, but it’s not Lou’s girlfriend Sandra, it’s Joan Raymond, an undercover insurance investigator hired by McDougal.

Bud doesn’t understand how two gorgeous women can go ga-ga over short, fat Lou. What he doesn’t know is Sandra is Dracula’s assistant, a female mad scientist out to help revive the Monster by transplanting Lou’s pliable brain into it. Add Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man himself, into this mix trying to put an end to Dracula’s grandiose scheme, and you’ve got a recipe for horror and humor that ends in a climactic Monster Battle Royal and a guest “appearance” by The Invisible Man (voiced by the one-and-only Vincent Price !).

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The monsters play it straight, leaving the comedy to A&C, except for a funny bit when Lou scares the bejesus out of the Monster! Lugosi dons Dracula’s cape onscreen for the first time in 17 years, though he still toured with the stage play on occasion. With those hypnotic eyes and double-jointed hand gestures, the 67-year-old Lugosi still conveyed the power of the evil Count. He’s charming under the guise of Dr. Lejos, but as Dracula he’s still the deadliest vampire of them all. This was Bela’s last good role in a major motion picture, and takes advantage of it, showing his acting talents hadn’t diminished one bit. Unfortunately, he received no further scripts of this caliber, and found himself mired in dreck like BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA , Ed Wood’s no-budget efforts, and his own tragic opiate addiction.

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Lon Chaney Jr.  returned to the studio that made him a star after being dismissed with the rest of Universal’s contract players after the merger. He’s less whiny than usual as Talbot, playing the nominal hero dead-set on stopping Dracula’s quest for world domination. Chaney still makes an athletic werewolf, as his physical acting had always outshone his sometimes awkward way with dialog. When they find Talbot’s room a shambles after the moon rises, Bud quips, “Boy, what a bender he must’ve been on last night”, possibly a veiled reference to Chaney’s problems with the bottle. In a funny bit, Talbot explains, “In a half hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf”, to which Lou replies, “You and twenty million other guys!”.

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Glenn Strange once again portrays the Frankenstein Monster, as he did in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA. His shambling, psychotic version of Mary Shelley’s creature is an instrument of pure destruction, totally unlike the Karloff original. Strange’s Monster has no soul, and who can really blame him, having suffered through all those brain transplants over the course of the series. Lenore Aubert as Sandra is both beautiful and deadly, Jane Randolph is okay as the plucky heroine, Frank Ferguson blusters his way through the part of McDougal, and Charles Bradstreet has the thankless role of Sandra’s assistant who suspects foul play.

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Abbott and Costello are… well, they’re Abbott and Costello! The duo had spent years honing their schtick in burlesque, on Broadway, radio, and in films. Teaming them with the Universal Monsters helped put them back on top and opened the floodgates for a slew of ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET movies. They met THE KILLER BORIS KARLOFF, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (again with Boris), THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, and even THE KEYSTONE KOPS! The boys are in top form here, their timing and snappy patter routines sharp as ever, and are the comic glue that holds the horrors together.

Many horror fans ask, “Yeah, but where does this fit in the Universal horror canon?” My answer to that is, “WHO CARES!” ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN stands alone as a horror-comedy classic, and should be enjoyed as such. It’s your last chance to see Lugosi in his definitive role, Chaney as the cursed Larry Talbot, and Strange as the demented Monster. Plus Bud and Lou at the peak of their comic power. That’s more than enough for me, and will be for you too when you watch ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Happy Halloween all you monster lovers out there!

 

Halloween Havoc! Extra: Bobby “Boris” Pickett Does THE MONSTER MASH With Zacherley!

Happy Halloween! One of my favorite Halloween traditions is hearing Bobby “Boris” Pickett sing his 1962 smash THE MONSTER MASH, and this year I’ve discovered a real treat. Bobby doing a live performance at the Chiller Theater con in 2005 with none other than the late, great Zacherley! Enjoy!

Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (Columbia 1939)

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Bela Lugosi ( see yesterday’s post ) wasn’t the only horror icon who starred in a series of low-budget shockers. Boris Karloff signed a five picture deal with Columbia Pictures that was later dubbed the “Mad Doctor” series and, while several notches above Lugosi’s “Monogram Nine”, they were cookie-cutter flicks intended for the lower half of double feature bills. The first of these was THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, which sets the tone for the films to follow.

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Karloff plays Dr. Henry Savaard, inventor of a new surgical technique that requires the patient to die, then reviving him with a mechanical heart after performing the operation. This later became standard operating procedure during open-heart surgery, but back in 1939 was considered science fiction! Anyway, Savaard’s young assistant Bob agrees to go through the experimental procedure, but his girlfriend freaks out and calls the cops, claiming Savaard is about to murder him. The cops, along with a reporter named Scoop no less, barge into the doctor’s lab and interrupt things. The delay causes Bob’s death and Savaard is arrested for murder.

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We next get one of my favorite film devices, the spinning-newspaper-headlines montage! Savaard goes on trial, is found guilty, and sentenced to hang. Karloff gets to deliver a long, dramatic speech, which he does with his usual elegant style: “You who have condemned me, I know you’re kind. Your forebearers poisoned Socrates, burned Joan of Arc, hanged, tortured all those whose only offense was to bring light into darkness. For you to condemn me and my work is a crime so shameful that the judgement of history will be against you for years to come.” There’s more, but you get the gist, and King Boris delivers it with passion.

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Next, more spinning headlines! Savaard’s about to be executed, and donates his body to science, but what the officials don’t know is his corpse will be handed over to his loyal assistant Lang, who revives Savaard from the dead. Then… no, not spinning headlines, this time it’s calendar pages marking the passing of time. Six months go by, and six of the Savaard jurors have hung themselves… or have they? Scoop smells a scoop, and his editor encourages him to get the story: “Make it weird! Make it dramatic! And make it snappy!”. Scoop gets wind that the judge has invited the remaining jurors, along with the DA, the lead cop, and the freaked-out girlfriend, to meet that evening at Savaard’s old house. Of course, it’s a trap, and now all Savaard’s enemies are in one place so he can pick them off one by one….

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THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG isn’t a bad movie, though modern audiences will find the plot all too familiar. Boris is the glue that holds the thing together, and gives us a great performance. Others in the cast range from good to not-so-good. Lorna Gray’s in the latter category, in the thankless role of Savaard’s daughter Janet, who spends most of the picture in tears. Robert Wilcox as Scoop is just okay, no better or worse than any horror film hero. The Columbia Pictures stock company fills out the rest of the roster, including character favorites like Don Beddoe , Ann Doran, Roger Pryor, Byron Foulger, Charles Trowbridge, Dick Curtis , John Tyrell, and a young James Craig.

Nick Grinde’s direction keeps things moving, and Karl Brown’s screenplay has several soliloquies for Karloff to deliver. Brown’s career stretched back to D.W. Griffith and BIRTH OF A NATION, and he was cinematographer on the silent classic THE COVERED WAGON. He did some directing, but is mostly remembered for his screenplays on these Columbia Karloffs and what’s arguably Bela’s worst Monogram, THE APE MAN. The remaining “Mad Doctor” films mostly follow suit: THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES, BEFORE I HAND, and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (the fifth in Karloff’s contract was THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, a spoof co-starring Peter Lorre ). They’re all okay, not on a par with Karloff’s Universal or RKO classics, just B-movies that’ll keep you entertained on a cold Halloween night.

Halloween TV Havoc!: LIZARD’S LEG AND OWLET’S WING (“ROUTE 66”, 1962)

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The TV series ROUTE 66 followed the adventures of two young men (Martin Milner, George Maharis) as they cruised the fabled highway in their spiffy Corvette. The 1962 Halloween episode featured a special treat for horror fans, with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney Jr. guesting as themselves. The three screen ghouls are debating the value of their old Gothic-style chillers vs the modern, “adult” horrors like PSYCHO. Karloff makes his final appearance in his Frankenstein makeup, while Lon dons the Wolf Man and Mummy makeups once again (and his dad’s Hunchback, too!). If you’re a classic horror lover, you’re absolutely gonna LOVE watching this Trio of Terror Titans (especially Chaney!) in “LIZARD’S LEG AND OWLET’S WING”:

(Also in the cast are Betsy Jones-Mooreland (Corman’s THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH), Martita Hunt (GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Hammer’s THE BRIDES OF DRACULA), veteran Conrad Nagel (whose nephew Don co-starred in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER), and rumor has it that’s Lon’s real-life grandson Ron in the opening scene.)

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Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in THE CORPSE VANISHES (Monogram 1943)

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A little over a week ago I wrote about Bela Lugosi’s pairing with The East Side Kids , and mentioned what’s been come to know as “The Monogram Nine”. These Poverty Row horrors were ultra-low-budget schlockfests made quickly for wartime audiences, and though the films weren’t very good, they gave Bela a chance to once again have his name above the titles. From 1941 to 1944, the Hungarian cranked out the rubbish: THE INVISIBLE GHOST, BLACK DRAGONS, THE CORPSE VANISHES, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT, THE APE MAN, VOODOO MAN, RETURN OF THE APE MAN, and the two East Side Kids entries. Let’s take a look at a typical Lugosi vehicle, 1943’s THE CORPSE VANISHES.

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Our story concerns young, virginal society brides who keep dying at the altar, their corpses hijacked by mysterious Dr. Lorenz (Bela, of course). The brides receive an “unusual orchid” whose “peculiar sweet odor” causes them to go into a state of suspended animation so Lorenz can extract their glandular fluids to keep his ancient wife young (she’s “at least 70 or 80 years old!”). Plucky girl reporter Pat Hunter finds some clues and investigates, leading her to seek out Lorenz, who’s an expert on horticulture. Hitching a ride with Dr. Foster, an assistant to Lorenz, they make their way to Lorenz’s sinister house, and Pat is greeted by mean bitch Countess Lorenz with a slap in the face!

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A storm outside forces Pat and Foster to spend the night at the old creep joint (as Sammy Petrillo would’ve called it), and Pat is visited by Angel, a creepoid henchman who lives in the cellar with his mom Fagah and dwarf brother Toby. Pat follows the creepoid through a secret panel in the armoire, then ditches him, but he discovers she followed him and follows her while munching on a turkey leg from the Monogram catering truck. She stumbles onto the missing corpses and hides while creepoid has fun petting their hair. Lorenz is naturally pissed about creepoid’s bumbling and strangles him.

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Pat has also discovered that Lorenz and the Countess sleep in his-and-her coffins, which kinda grosses her out. Lorenz explains this by saying, “I find a coffin more comfortable than a bed. Many people do, my dear”, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Pat and her newspaper come up with a scheme to trap Lorenz by staging a phony wedding, which goes awry when the fiendish doctor kidnaps Pat. A shootout with the cops results in Toby taking a bullet as Lorenz hightails it back to his creep joint to extract glandular fluids from Pat. Fagah, angry because both her freakish sons are now dead, stops him by plunging a knife in his back, then all kinds of chaos ensues until the cops barge in, late as usual. The case of the missing corpses is now solved, and Pat and Foster get married, supposedly to live happily ever after.

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Bela Lugosi spends most of his time lurking about and mugging for the camera. He’s does his best to make things work, but is saddled with a bad script and bad supporting cast. Luana Walters (Pat) is nice to look at, especially in those 40’s fashions, but her acting’s strictly amateur night. Tristam Coffin (Foster) is boring, and was put to much better use as a Western villain and serial hero (KING OF THE ROCKET MEN). Elizabeth Russell as the Countess is good, even using a Hungarian accent to compliment Bela. She was given much better material in her films with Val Lewton (CAT PEOPLE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM  , CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, BEDLAM ). Minerva Urecal (Fagah) just flat-out overacts, as do her creepoid sons (Frank Moran and Angelo Rossitto). Other Familiar Faces (who probably wanted to hide) include Vince Barnett, Kenneth Harlan, Joan Barclay, and George Eldridge.

While watching I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to Ed Wood’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER. There’s mad doctor Bela of course, the plucky girl reporter, the creepoid who strokes female victim’s hair (hello, Lobo!), and Bela whipping his henchman. I’m sure Ed saw this film and used these elements while concocting his script ten years later. Another similarity is the incredibly cheap sets that look like they’d fall over in a stiff breeze! THE CORPSE VANISHES, despite it’s faults, is fun to watch for Lugosi fans eager to see our hero play to the balcony again. It’s not a great film by any stretch, but for connoisseurs of bad cinema in general, and Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine” in particular, it’s definitely must-viewing!

Halloween Havoc! Extra: Farewell to ‘The Cool Ghoul’, Zacherley

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John Zacherle passed away October 27 at the age of 98. Younger readers may not understand the significance of this, but to Monster Kids like me it’s another reminder of the rapid passing of time. For John Zacherle, under the guise of an undertaker named Zacherley, was the TV horror host who set the standard for all the local horror hosts to come, influencing generations of horror fans to this day hosting public domain flicks on the internet and local cable access channels.

John Zacherle the man was born September 26, 1918 in Philidelphia, PA. After serving in WWII, he acted in local theater companies, until landing a gig as “Roland” in 1957, hosting the city’s SHOCK THEATER package of Universal horror films. What set him apart was the skits he performed on the show, gruesome little comic parodies from his crypt with his dead wife and a lab assistant named Igor (what else?). Roland became somewhat of a phenomenon in Philly, and his good friend Dick Clark (hosting another local show, AMERICAN BANDSTAND) helped him get a record out called “Dinner With Drac”, predating Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” by four years:

The record hit #6 on the Billboard charts, and Roland’s success caught the eye of TV execs in New York. He soon moved to The Big Apple, changing his moniker from Roland to Zacherely but keeping his ghoulish black humor. As Zacherley, he hosted the NYC version of SHOCK THEATER, followed by ZACHERLEY AT LARGE and CHILLER THEATER. The Cool Ghoul (a nickname bestowed upon him by Clark) even hosted a teen dance party show titled DISC-O-TEEN, as you’ll see in this rare 1967 Halloween clip with The Box Tops (featuring the immortal Alex Chilton!):

Zach was also a radio DJ and hosted rock shows in Central Park and at the fabled Fillmore East. Later in life, he made cameos in cult films like FRANKENHOOKER and DR. TERROR’S EROTIC HOUSE OF IDIOTS, and was a regular on the East Coast Horror Con circuit, interacting with and signing autographs for his legion of fans right up until last year. John Zacherle is gone now, but his influence lives on in horror hosts across America, from Penny Dreadful to Dr. Gangrene to Karlos Borloff to Me-TV’s Svengoolie. I was planning on doing a write-up on one of my favorite 70’s hosts, Simon of Boston’s SIMON’S SANCTORUM until I heard the news of Zacherley’s passing. Simon will have to wait until next year’s ‘Halloween Havoc!’. I’m sure he’d understand.

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Here’s the cover of Zacherley’s LP “MONSTER MASH”. I had this as a young Monster Kid (wish I still did!), and besides the title tune and “Dinner With Drac”, my favorite cut was a murderous little ditty called “Gravy (with some cyanide)”. Thanks for helping to warp my impressionable mind, Zach!!! 

Halloween Havoc!: DONOVAN’S BRAIN (United Artists 1953)

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No, this is not a movie about the mind of the 60’s Scottish folk singer responsible for “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow”. DONOVAN’S BRAIN is a sci-fi/horror hybrid based on the 1942 novel by Curt Siodmak, responsible for THE WOLF MAN and other Universal monster hits. It was first made as a 1944  Republic Pictures effort titled THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim (why Universal didn’t buy the rights is a mystery to me). This is one of those rare cases where the remake is better than the original!

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The story concerns Dr. Pat Cory, a scientist experimenting with keeping the brain of a monkey alive without a body. After several failures, Cory and his assistant, alcoholic Dr. Frank Schratt, have finally succeeded. A nearby plane crash leaves three dead, and multi-millionaire Warren H. Donovan in critical condition. Donovan dies on the table, but his brain is still registering “alpha waves”, and Cory removes it from Donovan’s body, and miraculously keeps it alive!

Cory believes Donovan’s brain still contains all the man’s thoughts and knowledge, and tries to find a way to communicate with it. The brain waves begin to deviate as if it’s still thinking, and after a week it has grown, it’s impulses increasing. The doctor hooks the brain up to a radio set, hoping to receive transmission, and gets more than he bargained for when Donovan’s Brain begins to take over, returning the dead millionaire to life in Cory’s body, taking over his will and becoming the dominant force.

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Lew Ayres does a splendid job as Cory/Donovan in this sci-fi variation on the Jekyll/Hyde theme. Ayres is better known as another doctor, playing Dr. Kildare in a series of MGM films in the late 30’s/early 40’s. There’s no weird makeup or transformation scenes, yet Ayres is convincing playing two distinct parts. The actor was a conscientious objector during WWII, serving as a medic, and his career suffered in those fervent patriotic days because of his stance. Besides the Kildare movies, Ayres appeared in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Oscar winner of 1930), IRON MAN (not the superhero, a boxing film with Jean Harlow), STATE FAIR, JOHNNY BELINDA (Best Actor nominee), and THE DARK MIRROR, among many others.

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Nancy Davis is solid in the role of Cory’s faithful wife Jan. She gained a bit more fame when she became the wife of Ronald Reagan, and served as First Lady. Gene Evans (Schratt) was a burly favorite of director Sam Fuller, who cast him in five films. Steve Brodie plays a sleazy, blackmailing photo-journalist who naturally gets his comeuppance. Other Familiar Faces are John Hamilton (SUPERMAN’s‘s Perry White), Tom Powers, Shimen Ruskin, and Harland Warde. Felix Feist wrote and directed, keeping things tense, aided by Joseph Biroc’s photography.

Original novelist Curt Siodmak is well known to classic horror fans as writer of the screenplays for THE WOLF MAN, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS , BLACK FRIDAY, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS . The brother of noir director Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE KILLERS ), Curt also tried his hand in the director’s chair, though without the success of his brother. Curt helmed the goofy low-budgeter BRIDE OF THE GORILLA (featuring Lon Chaney Jr, Raymond Burr, and Barbara Payton) and the boringest sci-fi I’ve ever watched, THE MAGNETIC MONSTER. As a director, Curt was a great writer!

The novel itself was a best seller, and is referenced in numerous books, movies, and TV shows. No less than Stephen King is a fan, and so am I, having read it when I was a teen. DONOVAN’S BRAIN makes a gripping little film, worth your time to rediscover and enjoy.